Surgical masks, FFP2, FFP3, and in recent weeks, even homemade ones! An item normally worn only by health-care professionals is becoming more and more our companion on outings. But who really has to wear them and how much can they protect us?

Until a few months ago, many people (myself among them) smiled when we saw people (usually somewhere in Asia) wearing masks; who knows how many wondered if they did it just in order to protect themselves or others? Then COVID-19 arrived, and we started wearing masks as well, to protect both ourselves and others.

At first, authorities told us that they were useless, and then they told us that we should only wear them if we were exhibiting symptoms. Fast-forward to the present day where, in some regions of Italy like Piedmont and Lombardy, everyone must wear them when leaving their house. In some cases (for those considered at higher risk), it’s suggested to also wear them at home.

These are the people who absolutely must wear masks: COVID-19 patients, health-care workers, and those who take care of people suffering from Coronavirus, those taking immunodepressants and those who, out of necessity, work closely with these people — without the assurance of being able to maintain a safe distance.

But which types of masks are available?

The main masks on the market are basically divided into two groups:

  • PPE or “Personal Protective Equipment” and have the CE marking
  • Medical and/or Surgical face masks

Let’s take a closer look at them to understand what the differences are, so that we’re able to choose the one that’s the most appropriate for our needs.

FPP1, FFP2 and FFP3 for high filtration efficiency

PPE, as generally filtering masks, are part of this category and are comprised of the now famous FFP2 and FFP3; these are regulated by the European Standard EN 149 (for respiratory protective devices) where FFP refers to Filtering Facepiece Particles.

FFP2 has a filtering efficiency of 92% and is recommended for protection against coronavirus.

FFP3 has an efficiency of 98% and in comparison with FFP2, it has a valve. Its main characteristic is that it does not retain the virus, but expels it, so it protects the wearer very well but does not protect those who come into close contact with the wearer of the FFP3 mask.

Then there is the FFP1 model that is simply a dust mask, effective in masonry work, in order to protect us from dust particles that are much larger than those of a virus.

The classic surgical masks to block the virus (outgoing)

Surgical masks are quite effective if the wearer presses them tightly to the face and can be of Type I, II or IIR. The latter type is characterized by the presence of a visor that also protects the eyes, and therefore can be particularly useful in protecting yourself at home when you have to take care of an elderly person who is sick and you must be in very close contact with them — for example, when helping them to move around.

Surgical masks block 95% of outgoing viruses. They don’t have a filtering function in the inspiratory phase, so they don’t protect the wearer from inhaling airborne particles such as the aerosol formed after sneezing.

A completely new business

Some companies that are active in completely different fields (such as textile companies) have started to produce masks. One of these is a sporting goods company called “La Sportiva”, known mostly among mountaineering and hiking enthusiasts, which has thrust itself into this new field. Its mask is called “Stratos Mask” and has the added benefit of respecting the environment. Yes, because now that everyone uses masks, their disposal has become an environmental issue.

Stratos Mask is referred to as a generic protective hygienic sports mask. It’s made of fabric with an interchangeable and easily replaceable internal filter. It’s washable and reusable and therefore “ecological”. There is no data on its ability to protect us from viruses or other pathogens, and the fact that it’s called “hygienic” and provides “generic protection” does not bode well for its level of protection. It seems more like a handkerchief, covering both nose and mouth — that functions as a really useful mask against infectious agents.

Even some Italian influencers (such as Chiara Ferragni) and sports champions have started posting photos on social networks about their collection of signed masks. Let’s say that the wish for us and for the next generations are that these masks don’t become more and more an object of common use. But in the meantime, companies — as well as individuals — are adapting and reacting to this totally unexpected crisis that none of us was prepared for.

Don’t forget the social distancing

Wearing a mask is certainly not enough if you’re not observing social (safety) distancing — and also if you don’t change your mask every day, and especially if you’re infected with COVID-19, because the humidity of our breath produces a microclimate that promotes the survival of the virus.

So let’s protect ourselves with patience and … masks, of course!

This post is also available in: Italiano

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